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'Mr Rugby'

An appreciation by John Griffiths


Vivian Gordon James Jenkins was the son of a headteacher and used to say that the heroes of his youth were the “wizards” of Aberavon RFC. He lived in Port Talbot as a boy and used to crawl through the club’s perimeter fence to catch a glimpse of the town side in action. That was the beginning of a life-long love-affair with rugby.


Cricket was another passion, but hours devoted to rugby during schooldays at Llandovery College enabled him to develop into a powerful centre, the position where he later won three Oxford Blues between 1930 and 1932 and was never on the losing side.

                His fondest memory of Oxford , however, was of the cricket field. In 1933, in his final year studying classics as an exhibitioner at Jesus College , he was called up at the eleventh hour to keep wicket in the Varsity Match and his defensive batting on the final day of a rain-affected match earned Oxford a draw. He also played occasionally for Glamorgan between 1931 and 1937.

                It was at the whim of the Welsh rugby selectors that the tall, leggy Jenkins was transformed into a full back. W J (Willie) Llewellyn, the Bridgend club secretary and a committee member of the Welsh Rugby Union, asked Jenkins to fill the full back role for Bridgend during the Christmas vacation in 1932 so that the Big Five could watch the club’s three-quarters, all contenders for caps, perform in the Boxing Day game against Newport at Rodney Parade. The displaced centre, however, proved the stand-out player that day. In his new role he was chosen for the Possibles XV that defeated the Probables in the final Welsh trial and then was selected to face England in January 1933.

                For the first time in ten attempts Wales triumphed at Twickenham and, despite playing with a high temperature, the new full back fielded immaculately and sent long torpedo punts spiralling into touch. He and Willie Llewellyn, who was also a well-known international referee and the Welsh touch-judge at Twickenham that day, additionally featured in an incident that was to lead to a change in the laws.

                England had opened the scoring when Don Burland broke through in the first half to send Walter Elliot in for a try.  Soon after the interval, however, Wales took the lead when wing three-quarter Ronnie Boon dropped a goal from a loose maul 20 yards from the English posts.  That pushed Wales 4-3 ahead with all to play for.

                Then Ronnie Boon put Wales further in front with a try.  Welsh centre Claude Davey drew the English full-back perfectly to release Boon on a run that took the wing arcing outside the defence for a try near the posts.  Jenkins lined up the simple kick and sent the ball, so the Welsh supporters and Welsh touch-judge thought, straight between the posts. 

                Even the scoreboard operator believed that the kick was good, for he marked up a Welsh lead of 9-3 with time running out. Converted tries were worth only five points at this time, so most of the crowd and players felt that Wales were virtually safe with England having to score twice to win.

                Not so. Only at the end of the match was it made clear by the Irish referee, Tom Bell, that Jenkins’s conversion kick from close range had failed.  What was true was that Willie Llewellyn had signalled the goal.  Knowing Jenkins’s abilities as a goal-kicker on the Brewery Field, Llewellyn presumably could not believe that the young place kicker would miss a goal from such a good position.

                The score had come ten minutes from no-side and the misunderstanding could have had a profound influence on the outcome of the match. The fact was that England only needed another breakaway try and conversion to win the match.  Whether or not the English players were aware of the position is not recorded, though it was reported that the Welsh forwards so dominated the closing stages of the match that it was as much as England could do to prevent Wales from increasing their lead.

                Until 1933 all restarts had been taken as place kicks. To prevent future confusion, the International Board altered the kick-off law a year later to read : “the kick-off is a place kick after a goal has been kicked, or a drop kick after an unconverted try.” That way players and spectators would know whether or not a conversion had been successful.

Jenkins went on to become the leading full back of the day, noted not just for his kicking and defensive qualities but also for his flair for attack, the legacy of his earlier days as a centre. Against Ireland in 1934 he created quite a stir by scoring a try, a feat never previously performed by a Welsh full back. “It was not the done thing,” he once recalled.

                For his heroic rugby deeds in 1935-36 he became a household name. His two conversions and a heroic try-saving race against All Black winger George Hart helped Wales to a 13-12 victory against New Zealand – “by that lovely point,” Arthur Rees, the Welsh pack-leader and his lifelong friend since schooldays, used to say. Jenkins always maintained that it was the most nerve-wracking match he ever took part in.

                “In most big games,” he later wrote, “the needle a player feels before the kick-off usually evaporates once the game has started. After five or ten minutes action has provided its own sedative. The cut and thrust continues but the opening fever dies down. Not so in that Wales v New Zealand match. I have it on the authority of the Welsh full back that day that the needle continued right up to the end.”

                The “Welsh full back that day” was a meticulous man both as player and later as a journalist. A fortnight after Wales defeated the All Blacks, England did so by 13-0, a veritable thrashing in those far-off days. England’s hero was a certain Prince Alex Obolensky on the right wing and the scorer of two spectacular first-half tries.

                The next international match on the calendar was the Wales-England game at Swansea a fortnight later to launch the International Championship season. Jenkins, hearing of Obolensky’s remarkable speed and unorthodoxy thought he should do some preparation before facing the Russian. He took himself off to a London cinema and sat through 80-odd minutes of some dreadful B-film – twice – in order to catch a couple of 40-second newsreel glimpses of Obolensky in action.

                The preparation paid off. Wales held England to a 0-0 draw. Later the same season, Jenkins kicked the penalty that gave Wales the International Championship title in a tight decider with Ireland.

                He toured South Africa as vice-captain of the 1938 Lions. A persistent hamstring injury curtailed his appearances on tour, but he kicked three penalties – including one monster effort from his own half – in the opening Test at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. For many years the eight-panelled South African-made ball from that test match had pride of place among the hats and brollies in the porch of his Hertfordshire home, a talking point for new visitors or old playing colleagues.

                He retired from international rugby after the England match in 1939, aged only 27, to build a career in sports journalism. He had worked briefly as a schoolmaster, teaching classics and games at Dover College in Kent, and was in the City with the Land Law Company for a couple of years before joining the News of the World to cover rugby, cricket, motor-racing and tennis.

                His club rugby by this time was with London Welsh, who were then based at Herne Hill. Saturday mornings were working days during his stint at Dover College and in the City. Often he was unable to turn out for a London Welsh away match, but was equally happy to play for anyone who would select him. He once recalled: “Early in 1934, I played for the Dover town side in front of 20 people one Saturday, and the next weekend I played for Wales in front of 80,000 at Murrayfield.”

                After joining the Territorial Army in August 1939 he served in the anti-aircraft command and was promoted to the rank of Captain. He played (and reported) regularly during the months of the “Phoney War” and kicked six conversions when the British Army beat France 36-3 at Parc des Princes in February 1940, France’s first international match against any British/Irish side since their banishment from the International Championship nine years earlier.

                He returned to Fleet Street after the war and twice covered MCC cricket tours of Australia and New Zealand: with Walter Hammond’s side (against Bradman) in 1946-7 and Freddie Brown’s in 1950-1.

                For the next 25 years until his retirement in 1976 he reported every important rugby match and major tour. He transferred to The Sunday Times in 1955 when Dai Gent, the Welsh-born scrum-half who had played for England against the original All Blacks of 1905, retired. Such was the leisurely pace of life in Gent’s day that he had successfully managed to harness the dual professions of teaching and sports journalism.

                Jenkins transformed the rugby coverage in the newspaper, and later the same year he and Bryn Thomas of the Cardiff Western Mail became the first British journalists to cover a Lions tour when they travelled to South Africa. 

 Viv Jenkins far right with JBG Thomas in the centre and Reg Sweet on the left reporting on the 1955 British Lions tour

When the tourists, spearheaded by Cliff Morgan, unexpectedly beat the Springboks 23-22 in the opening Test of that visit, rugby became big news back in Britain and Ireland. Jenkins maintained to the end of his days that that 1955 Test at Ellis Park in Johannesburg was the most exciting he had ever witnessed, and after it he and Thomas became hot property with both in huge demand to supply stories and reports. Jenkins was a trailblazer for in 1962, when the Lions next visited South Africa, every Fleet Street newspaper sent its rugby correspondent to provide coverage.

                The 1955 tour was followed by the publication of his book Lions Rampant. It was a rugby classic, as was his follow-up to the 1959 Lions tour, Lions Down Under. Yet despite numerous subsequent invitations, that was to be his last foray as a book author.

                Even so, at length Jenkins became the most respected and most knowledgeable rugby critic in the game. He was commissioned to write articles for magazines and newspapers worldwide, and in 1960 was a moving force behind the formation of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club. The objects of the club were to further the interests of the game and to further the interests of rugby union writers. He served the club as chairman in the mid-1960s and in recognition of his outstanding work his colleagues subsequently elected him an honorary life member.

                He was also approached by the football writer Charles Buchan to launch a monthly rugby union magazine in 1960. Jenkins’s commitments were too great to undertake the task single-handed, but he recognised the scope (and need) for such an enterprise and worked behind the scenes to help bring together the small team that in October 1960 launched Rugby World magazine. It still flourishes nearly fifty years later. Jenkins was the technical adviser and for three decades wrote the magazine’s lead-article. It was compulsory reading for anyone interested in the game. Through his “Opinion” pieces as well as his weekly newspaper column he campaigned vigorously for law changes to the game.

                On tour with the 1959 Lions he had seen the New Zealand full-back, Don Clarke, kick six penalties at Carisbrook to pip the Lions’ four tries by 18-17 at a time when tries were valued at three points. His wire to The Sunday Times opened: “The pain and the agony! … The manner of [the Lions’] undoing hardly bears talking about, so outrageous seem the slings of fortune at this moment.”

                Jenkins proposed raising the points value of the try to encourage teams to adopt positive attacking tactics, he became a vigorous campaigner for the Australian dispensation law that restricted direct kicking to touch, and was the first to lobby for the introduction of the differential penalty. At length, all three entered the law book.

                Always a popular newsman with tourists, his favourite Lions he once divulged were the class of ’59:  “They were such a diverse and talented group of men, on and off the field, yet such fun to be with.” In those days Jenkins was so highly regarded by players and officials that he was trusted as an honorary member of the Lions tour party. Many of the stories he knew about players and officials never appeared in print. In that respect he was an honourable upholder of the player’s maxim: “What goes on tour stays on tour.”

                The visits that brought him the greatest satisfaction were those with the Lions to New Zealand and South Africa in 1971 and 1974 when, briefly, British and Irish rugby ruled the roost. “Sound the trumpets. They did it!”, he wrote after the Lions had beaten New Zealand 9-3 in the opening Test of 1971.

                He spent the best part of 80 years watching, playing or following international rugby but rated Dr Doug Smith and Carwyn James’s 1971 tour the high-water mark of his reporting days. “Barry John, with his goal-kicking, was possibly the greatest match-winner of all,” he felt.

                Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, J P R Williams, Peter Jackson, Jeff Butterfield and Tony O’Reilly were other Lions he rated very highly, while from his own playing days he admired the skills of Charles Dick, “Tuppy” Owen-Smith, Wilf Wooller, Haydn Tanner and Cliff Jones. He had no doubt, either, about the finest try ever scored by a forward in an international. It was a 50-yard sprint by Wavell Wakefield for England against Wales at Cardiff in 1926 – Jenkins’s first international match. Young Viv was a boy of 14 standing on a biscuit tin to see over the heads of the crowd.

                “Wakers, with hunched shoulders and arms and legs going like pistons, rounded the Welsh full-back on a wide arc like a ghost train. I never saw a forward run faster.”

                The most significant change in the game’s laws during his long reign he always said was the introduction of the Australian dispensation law, restricting direct kicking to touch. It revolutionised the role of the full back, making the No 15 a key player in attack, as Jenkins had wanted to be in his own playing days.

                Typically he remained prominent after his retirement from The Sunday Times in November 1976. For its first ten years he edited the Rothmans Rugby Union Yearbook, building the annual into rugby’s bible. It was “putting something back into the game” he used to say.

                Mind, those poor contributors and correspondents who witnessed first hand his characteristic attention to detail wished that he’d have practised putting that something back in to the game just a little later in the day. They were often phoned at ungodly hours as he queried a fact or figure. Calls, sometimes from Australia, sometimes New Zealand where he was on holiday visiting former friends or his extended family, could come through in the small hours. “Hello, it’s Vivian Jenkins here,” he would begin, and then proceed to check points on one’s copy or verify statistics with the purpose of a forensic accountant poring over suspect expenditure.

                Another of his rugby interests was the Crawshay’s Welsh RFC, the “Welsh Barbarians” he called them. He was an active member of a club that encouraged young Welsh players and during his stint as Rothmans editor Jenkins always ensured that the club’s fixtures featured prominently in the calendar of the year’s forthcoming big matches. Long after his retirement from writing, a highlight of his rugby year was touring with the club.

                A story he told against himself involved a long coach journey with the club in the south of France. A young player struck up a conversation with the former Lions and Wales full back: “Did you ever play the game yourself, Mr Jenkins?”

                He must have set the world record for attending rugby dinners and parties – the only one he reckoned he missed was the traditional Twickenham post-match banquet after his first cap in 1933, when he had to retire to his bed with a 100-plus temperature.

                He partied hard. His stamina was legendary. On tour, he was reputedly the last to his bed and the first to rise. Bryn Thomas used to tell the definitive Jenkins tour stories: “You could judge how boisterous the evening had been by the size of the flowers he dispatched the following morning. He always apologised in style.”

                Thomas reckoned they were lucky to escape with their lives during the 1955 tour. “He nearly killed us both on safari when he dispersed some hungry looking lions, the animal variety, by throwing a bottle of brandy in our campfire.”

                Even as a senior citizen his stamina barely waned. His 80th birthday occasion coincided with the England-Australia Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham in 1991 – did he really have that much sway with the IRB organisers of the tournament, former colleagues wondered? While his annual Christmas newsletter for 2001 revealed that his 90th birthday had been a marathon of celebration – numerous special occasions, including one bash thrown by the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff, where Sir Tasker Watkins VC gave him a generous tribute.

                His wife Susan, who was the niece of the old Richmond and England rugby forward George Fraser, died in 1984 and thereafter he divided his time between Britain and New Zealand, somehow managing to summer all the year round. He became the companion at her Queenstown home of Elinor Stewart, the widow of former All Black Ron Stewart who had toured Britain and South Africa with the New Zealand teams of the 1920s.

                Vivian Jenkins died in January 2004 after four-score years and twelve packed with rugby, cricket, friends and family. The memorial service celebrating his life, held near his Hertfordshire home, attracted a galaxy of Barbarians, Wales and Lions stars, including Cliff Morgan who paid a warm and fitting tribute to a Welsh rugby man who has been greatly missed.


Born: 2 November 1911   Died: 5 January 2004

Clubs: Jesus College, Oxford University, Bridgend, Dover, London Welsh

Debut: v England, 21 January 1933

Wales career: 1933 E, I, 1934 S, I, 1935 E, S, NZ, 1936 E, S, I, 1937 E, 1938 E, S, 1939 E

Caps: 14  Points: 36

Lions career: Toured South Africa as vice-captain of the 1938 side. 11 matches (including one Test); 50 points (including three penalties in the Test match)



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Lions Rampant (1956)



Lions Down Under (1960)


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